February 2011

Tofu is not an exciting food. It has no color, a mild but not especially appealing flavor, and a nondescript texture that’s soft but not rich or creamy.  In an egg-free household, though, tofu’s blandness makes it useful. I’ve added it to smoothies for a protein boost and used it as a stand-in for ricotta in lasagna and for eggs in brownies. But I’ve never been inclined to let it take center stage in my cooking.

Then one day I had a desperate craving for my favorite of all egg dishes, huevos rancheros, and decided to give tofu it’s big break. I crumbled a block into a skillet with chopped veggies and salsa, toasted a corn tortilla, sliced an avocado, and in 10 minutes had a hearty, healthy breakfast on the table. Vegans have been scrambling tofu for ages, and with good reason: It’s quick, it’s good for you, and — when combined with some bold flavors — it’s delicious!

Tofu rancheros

Serves 4

One 14-oz. package firm tofu

About 3 tbsp. olive oil, divided

1 zucchini, finely diced

1 red bell pepper, finely diced

1 bunch scallions, white and light green parts only, thinly sliced

1 c. salsa

Salt, to taste

4 corn tortillas

1 avocado, sliced

Drain the tofu, wrap it in a clean dish towel or a double layer of paper towels, and press it between two heavy dinner plates to remove excess moisture.

Warm a large skillet over medium-high heat. Drizzle in 2 tbsp. oil, then add zucchini.  Cook 2 minutes, stirring occasionally, then add pepper and scallions and cook 2 minutes more. Crumble the tofu into bite-sized pieces into the pan and add salsa. Lower heat to medium and cook, stirring gently so tofu doesn’t disintegrate, about 5 minutes or until warmed through. Season with salt if needed and set aside.

Heat the oven to 150 degrees. Warm a small skillet over medium-high heat.  Drizzle in 1 tsp. oil and swirl to coat the bottom of the pan. Toast one tortilla in the pan, a minute or two on each side, until hot and softened and pockets of air start to form under its surface. Remove to a plate and keep warm in the oven while you cook the remaining tortillas.

To serve, top each tortilla with one quarter of the scrambled tofu and one quarter of the sliced avocado.

Tofu scramble with mushrooms, spinach, and bacon

This elegant, company-worthy scramble is rich and earthy with an assertive lemon flavor.

Serves 4

One 14-0z. package firm tofu

Canola oil

4 slices bacon

1 yellow onion, chopped

1 lb. cremini or white mushrooms, sliced

Juice of 1 lemon (scant 1/4 c.)

2 handfuls baby spinach

Salt and freshly ground, black pepper, to taste

Press tofu to remove extra liquid.

Fry bacon in a very lightly oiled skillet until crisp. Remove to a paper towel-lined plate and set aside.

Discard all but 2 tbsp. bacon fat from the skillet. Raise heat to medium and add onion.  Cook 2 minutes, then add mushrooms and a generous pinch of salt. Raise heat to medium high and cook, stirring occasionally, until mushrooms release their liquid and the liquid begins to evaporate. Crumble in the tofu — aim for bite-sized pieces — then add lemon juice and a few grindings of pepper.  Lower heat to medium and cook, stirring occasionally (and gently, so the tofu doesn’t disintegrate), until tofu is heated through, about 5 minutes. Fold in spinach and cook until wilted.  Season with additional salt as needed.  Serve immediately.

Make it vegan: I haven’t tried it, but tempeh bacon would probably give this dish the smoky flavor it needs. If you make the substitution, use olive oil to saute the vegetables.


The flavor base of this authentic Cuban dish is sofrito — an aromatic combination of onions, garlic, and green peppers that is to Spanish and Latin American cuisine what mirapoix is to French cooking. Resist the urge to turn these beans into chili by adding extra spices.  The restrained, balanced flavors – slightly smoky, slightly tangy, slightly sweet – are lovely on their own and easy on young palates.  Serve over rice or with sweet potatoes.

Cuban black beans

Makes about 8 cups, serving at least 6

1 lb. dried black beans, rinsed and drained

1 tbsp. olive oil

4 thick or 6 thin slices bacon, chopped

1 Spanish onion, peeled and finely chopped

1 large green pepper, seeded and diced small

6 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped

1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and diced small

Salt and freshly ground, black pepper, to taste

2 tsp. dried oregano

2 tsp. ground cumin

2 tsp. brown sugar

3 tbsp. cider vinegar

Place beans in a medium saucepan and add enough cold water to cover them by about 2 inches.  Bring to a boil over high heat.  Let beans boil 2 minutes, then turn off heat, cover pot, and let sit for 1 – 1 ½ hours.

Taste a bean.  If it is somewhat tender, season beans with a generous pinch of salt (if not, wait until beans have cooked a little longer before seasoning – adding salt too soon can result in tough beans), return to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, until beans are tender, 20-30 minutes longer.  Drain, reserving cooking liquid.

Drizzle oil into a large skillet or dutch oven.  Add bacon and set pan over medium heat.  When bacon starts to sizzle, stir occasionally until starting to brown, about 5 minutes.  Add onion and cook until softened, about 5 minutes.  Add green pepper, garlic, and jalapeno pepper. Season lightly with salt and black pepper.  Cook, stirring, until peppers are just tender, about 3 minutes more.  Stir in oregano, cumin, brown sugar, and cider vinegar.  Add beans and enough of their cooking liquid to just cover, about 2 ½ c.  Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer until slightly thickened, about 15 minutes.

If you have a kid with food allergies — especially one who loves chocolate as much as mine does — eventually the candy holidays start to get to you.  Swapping a Halloween haul of peanut butter cups and M&Ms for a handful of Dum Dums is standard practice in our house.  The Easter Bunny brings us jelly beans, but not the speckled, malted eggs that were my childhood favorite.  And as for the red cellophane-wrapped, heart-shaped boxes of caramel- and praline-filled confections… well, I’ve (almost) stopped thinking about those.

But all is not lost.  With a little extra effort — very little, in fact — Valentine’s Day can be a decadent holiday once more. Turns out, if you can open a bag of chocolate chips and push the buttons on a microwave, you can make some pretty special treats for your beloved little ones.

Unlike couverture chocolate, which requires a fussy heating and cooling process called tempering to keep molded chocolates from melting at room temperature, chocolate chips are made with stabilizing ingredients that help them set up again after exposure to heat (think chocolate chip cookies).  Not having to worry about the temperature of your chocolate lets you focus on the creative part of candy making: filling and decorating!  I used whimsical toppings like sprinkles and marshmallows  and imitated classics with Rice Krispies and creamy Sunbutter filling.  Use your imagination!  And have a super sweet Valentine’s Day.

Easy Homemade Valentine Chocolates

About 1 c. chocolate chips (enough to yield 30, 1-inch hearts)

Candy molds

A glass liquid measuring cup for melting chocolate (the glass retains heat so your chocolate won’t set up too fast while you work) and a small rubber spatula

Fillings and decorations of your choice.  I used rainbow sprinkles, halved mini marshmallows, Rice Krispies, and Sunbutter (instructions below).  Chopped dried fruits or nuts would also work.

Assemble all of your ingredients before you begin.  Make sure your molds, measuring cup, and spatula are clean and dry.

Melt chocolate chips in the measuring cup in the microwave.  Start with 60 seconds on high power.  Stir well with the spatula, then continue heating on high for 20 seconds at a time until chocolate is melted and smooth. Make sure the chocolate is not just melted but warm and somewhat fluid — if it doesn’t get hot enough, it won’t set up correctly when cooled.

Pour chocolate into molds.  Using a spatula will help you control the chocolate and keep it from overfilling the molds or dripping.  Tap the mold gently on the counter to settle the chocolate and remove air bubbles.  Decorate as desired, then put the molds in the freezer — this helps the chocolates set up quickly, making them easy to remove.

To decorate with sprinkles or colored sugar, fill the molds to the top then sprinkle evenly while still very soft.

To decorate with marshmallows, fill the molds nearly to the top, then partially submerge a halved mini marshmallow in the chocolate.  This would work with raisins or dried cherries, too.

To decorate with Rice Krispies, fill the molds about half way, sprinkle on a few Krispies, then fill with a little more chocolate.  Tap mold on the counter to settle chocolate around cereal.

To make a Sunbutter, peanut butter, or other nut butter filling, stir a tablespoonful with enough confectioner’s sugar to form a dough-like consistency (do this before you melt the chocolate).  Roll a tiny amount of filling into a ball and flatten into a disc.  Fill molds half way with chocolate.  Let sit for a minute to firm up a bit, then place disc of filling in the center of the mold.  Fill with a little more chocolate, then tap mold on the counter to cover filling.

Once set, store chocolates at room temperature.